Editor’s Note: Each contributor is reflecting upon Comparison of 15 Traditional Catholic Hymnals. Rather than rehashing Mr. Craig’s article, they were given freedom to “expand upon” this vast subject. Click here to read all the installments that have appeared so far.
HIS HAS BEEN a fascinating series: beginning with Dan Craig’s thorough treatment of fifteen different hymnals, we’ve moved along through a number of related topics. Several I found especially compelling: (a) how to best wed the beauties of hymnody to the timbral richness and variety of the organ—by Patrick Torsell; (b) the manner in which a hymn tune evolves over time—by Charles Weaver; (c) the historical importance of Ted Marier’s work—by Richard Clark; and (d) hymnals in Singapore—by Corrinne May. To follow up just for a moment on this last entry: Ms. May discusses the sometimes-challenge of determining a “good” hymn, particularly in regard to the Catholicity of a lyric. This brought to mind two recent books on Catholic hymnody, by two leading lights of the present-day church:
Real Music: A Guide to the Timeless Hymns of the Church (296-page book) was written by Anthony Esolen and published in 2016. Dr. Esolen, presently a professor at Magdalen College in New Hampshire, is one of my favorite Catholic columnists, whose training and years of teaching as both classicist and linguist give him substantial depth of perspective on what is missing or misunderstood in modern life, both secular and ecclesial. He’s a wonderful polemicist, skewering bad language wherever he finds it (in the New American Bible, for example, or in the texts of many a modern hymn). His passion stems in part from his understanding of the great liturgical principle lex orandi, lex credendi—roughly, “what we pray is what we believe”—and so poor language poisons our praise. We cannot worship well with wimpy words. (He might not approve of my alliterations.)
In this book, though, he offers less criticism, and more an unbounded joy in the riches of Christian hymnody, taking the readers on a linguistic and historical odyssey through twelve categories of hymns (“The Psalms,” “Penitence and Supplication,” “The Glory of God,” etc.). He offers detailed assessments of what makes for a lasting hymn: that is, what makes a good text poetry, and one step beyond that: what makes these particular poems great art. He writes with deep learning, but is never esoteric: there is a powerful momentum in every sentence and paragraph, that these beautiful prayers should be known and sung now, and that their disuse is a great tragedy to a Church made up of people who, because of the difficulties of life, are always in need of spiritual refreshment. The hardcover version comes with a CD recorded by the choir of St. John Cantius Church in Chicago, singing eighteen of the hymns under discussion.
As Dr. Esolen writes:
“at their best, [these hymns are] profound meditations upon the meaning of Scripture, their artistry serving to help us see truths that we may have missed, or to hear in our hearts—not only in our ears—the implications of the Word of God for our lives. They are verbal and melodic icons of Jesus Christ.”
Also published in 2016, The Stories of Hymns: the History behind 100 of Christianity’s Greatest Hymns (336-page book) was written by Rev. George Rutler, a priest of such erudition and vast written output that he probably doesn’t need any introduction here. 1 Unlike Dr. Esolen’s long and scholarly reflections on the history and development of particular texts, Fr. Rutler offers something in a gentler, more conversational tone, giving a two-page history of the text and music for each included hymn, and providing a score (melody only) for each as well, so that the combination of text and melody, having been introduced by the preceding essay, might then be experienced in its fullness by the reader (assuming that the reader reads music as well as text). These more modestly-sized reflections on the provenance of text and tune help to show the richness and variety of Christian poets and musicians over the centuries, and comprise a wonderful complement to Dr. Esolen’s more elaborate explications. It’s also instructive to read side-by-side entries from the two books on the same hymn: Fr. Rutler typically spends more time on the music than Dr. Esolen but less time with the lyrics, and his comments about texts are more anecdotal than analytical.
Both books are wonderful.
Our own Jeff Ostrowski interviewed Fr. Rutler about his book in 2018:
Here is a direct URL link to the YouTube.
Five Crucial Points
Fr. Rutler concludes the introduction to his book with this very important admonition:
The hymns that follow complement the Liturgy but are not part of it. The whole Mass itself is its own gigantic hymn, and it is only by indult that it is said at all instead of being sung. It is liturgically eccentric to “say” a Mass and intersperse it with extraliturgical hymns. Hymns may precede or follow the Mass, but they should never replace the model of the sung Eucharist itself with its hymnodic propers. In the Latin Rite, that model gives primacy of place to the Latin language and Gregorian chant, according to numerous decrees, most historically those of Pope Pius X in Tra le Sollecitudini and Vatican II’s Sacrosanctum concilium. The Church has normally reserved other hymns for other forms of public prayer, especially the Daily Office. And, of course, all hymns can be part of private prayer, following the Augustinian principle that he who sings prays twice.
Fr. Rutler makes some very important points:
1. Hymns are not, in fact, a part of the Mass itself, since every Mass contains its own proper texts which fill it from Introit to Communion et al. with scriptural texts. As Fr. Rutler says, every Mass is, taken in its completeness, a “gigantic hymn,” and therefore the insertion of other hymns is not required, and is, in fact, “liturgically eccentric.”
2. On the other hand, hymnody has a long tradition in the church, most particularly in the Liturgy of the Hours (the Daily Office), where most of the Hours open with the recitation (or singing) of a hymn. As a side note, the International Committee for English in the Liturgy (ICEL) has recently finalized a book of new translations of all the hymns contained in the Liturgy of the Hours, something that they’ve been working on for a decade and more, which will probably be released in early 2021. This will be, to my knowledge, the first collection in English of all the church’s “official” hymns.
3. Fr. Rutler notes the suitability of hymns at “other forms of public prayer.” One thinks immediately of the use of hymns during Eucharistic exposition and adoration, as well as at prayer rallies and other large religious gatherings. (Often praise-and-worship music is employed in these settings as well; whether they constitute an alternate type of “hymn” is a topic for another day.)
4. Fr. Rutler also advocates that hymns be used in private prayer. I suspect that there are relatively few of us who sing hymns alone or with our families, outside of a larger group context, though this sort of intimate setting may well be an excellent place for these compositions. Even if the pieces aren’t sung, both Dr. Esolen and Fr. Rutler would agree that a solid hymn text is worth time spent in reflection. The 1999 hymnal Cantate et Jubilate Deo takes an approach not unlike Fr. Rutler’s book, offering melody-only scores of numerous hymns and providing commentary for each piece. The editors make the following suggestion in the forward: “Considering the theological depth of many of these pieces, some written by the great Fathers and Doctors of the Church, it would also not be inappropriate to spend time privately studying and meditating on the texts, as one would study and contemplate other great spiritual masterpieces.” Sung, spoken, or meditated on: hymns can be a wonderful source of spiritual fruitfulness if we approach them at the right time and in the right spirit.
5. Finally, Fr. Rutler mentioned two documents on church music. Sacrosanctum concilium is the liturgical constitution drawn up by Vatican II, and as Fr. Rutler notes, it specifies the use of Latin and Gregorian chant as normative for the Mass. (No, Vatican II did not “ban Latin,” as so many people seem to think—quite the contrary!) This hearkens back to Pope Pius X’s instruction on sacred music, Tra le Sollecitudini, released in 1903, which specified the terms for the reform of sacred music. The document contains much in the way of specific rubrics, some of which are superseded in the present Ordinary Form of the Mass, but most of which are still in force. I’ve always found the following passage to be an evocative sum-up of the instruction as a whole:
Gregorian chant has always been regarded as the supreme model for sacred music, so that it is fully legitimate to lay down the following rule: the more closely a composition for church approaches in its movement, inspiration, and savor the Gregorian form, the more sacred and liturgical it becomes; and the more out of harmony it is with that supreme model, the less worthy it is of the temple.
In other words, Gregorian chant is the benchmark for all authentic liturgical music. That’s setting a high, and wondrous, standard for the sound of right worship.
A Practical Way Forward
What, then, do we do?
Fr. Rutler’s suggestion, that hymns be used before and after, but not during, the Mass, seems eminently sensible to me, notwithstanding those particular liturgies wherein a particular hymn is specified (the “Ubi caritas” and “Pange lingua” on Holy Thursday, for example). On the other hand, for a variety of historical and cultural reasons people have been singing hymns during Mass for a century or more (another topic for another day), and for many people it is difficult to imagine a Sunday Mass without them.
My recommendation would be that if hymns are to be used during Mass, they should have the “savor [of] the Gregorian form,” and so I’d like to offer the following non-exhaustive list containing chanted hymns and their appropriate seasonal or festal usage. Many of these are probably familiar hymns, but there may be a surprise or two as well. Following the Latin titles are the most common translations for singing in English, where applicable. (There are many more chants that could be added to such a list!)
Conditor alme siderum (Creator of the stars of night)
Rorate caeli desuper (the “Advent prose”)
Veni, veni Emmanuel (O come, O come Emmanuel, based on the ‘O’ antiphons for Dec. 17-23)
Corde natus ex parentis (Of the Father’s love begotten)
Attende, Domine (Hear us, Almighty Lord; also known as the “Lenten prose”)
Parce, Domine (usually coupled with Psalm 51 for the verses)
Stabat Mater (At the Cross her station keeping)
Vexilla Regis (The royal banners forward go)
Ubi caritas (Where true love and charity are found)
Pange lingua / Tantum ergo (Sing, my tongue, the Savior’s glory / Down in adoration falling, using the mode 3 Gregorian melody)
Crucem tuam (antiphon with verse)
Crux fidelis (Faithful Cross! Above all other)
Sequence: Victimae paschali laudes
Hymn: O filii et filiae (Ye sons and daughters)
Sequence: Veni Sancte Spiritus
Hymn: Veni Creator Spiritus (Come, O creator Spirit, come)
O Trinitas laudabilis
Sequence: Lauda Sion / Ecce panis angelorum
Panis angelicus (the final two verses of the Eucharistic hymn “Sacris solemniis”)
Ave verum Corpus
CHRIST THE KING
Christus vincit (a lengthy “call and response” chant)
Adoro te devote (Godhead here in hiding / Humbly I adore Thee)
Adoramus in aeternum (with the complete Psalm 117 as the verse)
O Salutaris hostia (O saving Victim opening wide, using the mode 8 Gregorian melody)
Jesu dulcis memoria (Jesus to cast one thought upon)
Da pacem Domine
Te Deum laudamus
Lucis Creator optime (O blest Creator of the light)
The seasonal Marian antiphons (borrowed from Vespers, i.e. the evening prayer of the Liturgy of the Hours) are often used at the close of Mass, after the blessing and dismissal, frequently in tandem with the prayer to St. Michael the Archangel. They’re typically sung in Latin. Sometimes the Marian antiphon will precede a closing hymn, while equally often it functions as the closing hymn, followed immediately by an organ postlude.
Salve Regina — from Trinity Sunday through Christ the King
Alma Redemptoris Mater — Advent through the Presentation (Feb. 2nd)
Ave Regina caelorum — Feb. 3rd through Wednesday of Holy Week
Regina caeli — Easter Sunday through Pentecost
Ave maris stella
Sub tuum praesidium
There seem to be handful of English hymns that get recycled at every funeral. But why should this be so? The Latin chants designated for the funeral and burial rites are some of the most beautiful in all the Gregorian repertory.
Requiem aeternam (Introit)
Lux aeterna (Communion)
Subvenite (Final Commendation)
In paradisum (Final Commendation, Recessional, or Burial)
Finally, and pace Fr. Rutler, the axiom about singing=“2x praying” is not quite accurate. What Augustine said is, “Singing is a thing of love,” sometimes also rendered as “Singing is a lover’s thing,” meaning that those who love, sing. We who love God must express that love in song! Compare that with the anonymous Latin phrase, “Bis orat qui bene cantat,” which translates as, “He who sings well prays twice.” This is why we need to train our choirs, and ourselves, and pray and study texts and music: that we may sing well and therefore double our prayers.
To God be the praise!
NOTES FROM THIS ARTICLE:
1 Before being published by EWTN in 2016, Father Rutler’s book was published as Brightest and Best: Stories of Hymns (Ignatius, 1998). You can read reviews of the 1998 release.